Friday, October 4, 2013

Typecasting: "Populaire"

By Pamela Zoslov

The clack-clack-clack-ding! that punctuates Régis Roinsard's Populaire sets off pleasant waves of nostalgia, if, like me, you miss the satisfying sounds and feeling of a manual typewriter. A stylistic and thematic hommage to American romantic comedies of the late 1950s, the movie tells the story of Rose Pamphyle (Déborah François), a shy young woman from a Normandy village who, tired of working in her father's general store and unwilling to marry the son of the town mechanic, dreams of being a secretary. She practices tirelessly on a portable Triumph typewriter. According to Rose, “A secretary means being modern.”

Friday, September 13, 2013

Jane's Addiction

Movie Review: Austenland

By Pamela Zoslov

Keri Russell and her would-be suitors.

I'll be honest: I never really "got" the obsession with Jane Austen. I read the novels required in high school and college — Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, some others I've forgotten — and found nothing magical in their themes of love and courtship among the landed gentry and genteel poor in 18th-century England. I realize Austen's prose is prized for its ironic tone and wry commentary on marriage as a way of elevating a young woman's social standing, but if I want social satire, I'll take Anita Loos. I have never been a fan of costume drama, and the “Janeite” cult that has spawned innumerable Austen film adaptations and meta-books and movies about women obsessed with Austen, eludes me.

I can understand, though, why Jane Hayes, the heroine of Austenland, is fixated on Austen's novels, in particular the aloof romantic ideal of Mr. Darcy as portrayed by Colin Firth in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Jane (charming Keri Russell of Waitress fame) is in her thirties, unmarried, and all her boyfriends have been disappointing. None of them, of course, can compare to the fictional Fitzwilliam Darcy, a life-size cardboard standup of whom — in the guise of the chin-challenged Colin Firth — stands proudly in Jane's frilly, Austen-bedecked bedroom. So frustrated by Jane's fixation is one suitor that he hauls off and punches Firth's smug paperboard face.

Austenland is adapted from Shannon Hale's novel of the same title, a breezy “chick lit” story that has Jane Hayes inheriting from her wealthy aunt a paid trip to Austenland, a kind of Jane Austen theme park offering an immersive “Austen experience” at an English country estate, complete with Regency gowns and manners, pheasant hunting, needlepoint, games of whist, and a simulated romantic happy ending with one of several hired actors. The movie was directed and co-scripted (with the book's author) by Jerusha Hess, creator with husband Jared Hess of Napoleon Dynamite, and the pairing of her absurdist sensibility with the novel's light premise is promising. Humorous energy pervades the opening, which dispenses with the story of Jane's aunt's bequest and has Jane, in romantic desperation, spending her last dollar on the Austenland adventure, with the help of a sleazy-looking travel agent reminiscent of Napoleon Dynamite's stuck-in-the-'70s uncle.

Hess' absurdist style surrenders all too quickly to bland silliness as we meet Jane's fellow Austenland visitor, a blowsy middle-aged doyenne calling herself “Miss Elizabeth Charming.” Elizabeth, who is looking for sexy fun rather than an Austen experience, is played by Jennifer Coolidge, whose outsize manner and looks have added amusing punctuation to several Christopher Guest comedies. Coolidge's character here, spouting witless lines in a stagy Eliza Doolittle accent, is cartoonish rather than funny, though I did laugh when she gushed, “Look, a car from the 1800s!”

Elizabeth and Jane are whisked off to the estate and Jane learns from the evil proprietess, Mrs. Wattelsbrook (Jane Seymour), that because she's paid only for the basic package, her accommodations are considerably more humble than the others guests'. Each client is given a scripted narrative, and Jane, owing to her lack of funds, is cruelly cast as “an orphan of no fortune.” She's dubbed “Miss Erstwhile” — another way of saying “has-been” — and relegated to sleeping in the servants' quarters and wearing drab gray gowns. Jane's experience, it seems, is to be more Jane Eyre than Jane Austen.

The gentlemen who populate this fantasy retreat are Col. Andrews (James Callis), Mr. Wattlesbrook (Rupert Vansittart), the proprietess' old, libidinous husband; and Mr. Henry Nobley (JJ Feild), the supercilious “Mr. Darcy” type. Jane, ostracized by the other guests and players, takes her romantic fantasy where she finds it, in the arms of the stable hand, Martin (Bret McKenzie). Jane thinks she's having a defiant“off-plan” romance as Martin shares with her his love of Billy Ocean songs and enables her to witness the birth of a foal — “the miracle of life” he says in his New Zealand accent that Jane somehow mistakes for British. After enlisting Elizabeth to fancy up her hair and gowns, Jane becomes an object of desire, pursued by some of the other actors, including Mr. Nobley. Who is real and who is acting in what Nobley calls “a dangerous game”? In this story, the lines between fiction and reality are blurred.

The funny movie lurking in this premise, suggested by a goofy end-credits sequence set to Nelly's “Hot in Here,” is never quite realized. The film is wobbily paced and only fitfully amusing, relying too heavily on Coolidge's malapropisms and heaving bosom. And yet the movie has its charms – a likeable cast, a zesty spirit and a blithe optimism that's balm for the romantically wounded.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Great Gatsby

The Cleveland Movie Blog: The Great Gatsby: Review by Pamela Zoslov The news that Australian director Baz Luhrmann was making yet another adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald&#...

Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Cleveland Movie Blog: The Big Wedding

The Cleveland Movie Blog: The Big Wedding: Review by Pamela Zoslov Everything about THE BIG WEDDING , a comedy written and directed by Justin Zackham, reeks of Hollywood cynici...

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Place Beyond the Pines

By Pamela Zoslov

The surprise of Derek Cianfrance's second feature, The Place Beyond the Pines, is that it is three films in one. The first section of the triptych, shot in the moody, azure-tinted style of Blue Valentine, centers on Luke (Ryan Gosling), a drifter and stunt motorcyclist who adopts a life of crime to support his baby son. The second, shot in a more traditional style, is a police drama focusing on Avery (Bradley Cooper), a rookie patrolman who has a fateful encounter with Luke. The third, and least successful section, set 15 years later, focuses on the now adolescent sons of the criminal and the cop. Cianfrance, who also co-write the script, has attempted a multi-generational saga, with linked sections reminiscent of Stephen Soderbergh's Traffic (or, less flatteringly, the Wachowskis' Cloud Atlas). Ambitious in its sweep and running just under two and a half hours, the film promises greater significance than it delivers. But it is not without stylistic flair and thematic interest.

In the first section, Gosling is a laconic antihero, a man with no background, copious tattoos and cigarette perpetually dangling from his lips. Cianfrance, who also directed Gosling in Blue Valentine , is evidently enamored of Gosling's bleached-blond outlaw image, framing him against a blurred night background of carnival neon. Luke, a stunt cyclist of legendary reputation, is performing in a carnival in upstate New York, where a beautiful ex-girlfriend, Romina (Eva Mendes) approaches him. Luke visits Romina's house and learns,from her mom that he is the father of Romina's baby son. Father-son relationships are a central theme of the film; one of the few things we learn about Luke is that his old man wasn't there for him (there's an original theme), so he wants to be there for his kid. Toward that end, he lets a low-life pal talk him into a new career: robbing banks.

Luke ignores his friend's advice to commit the robberies without violence. Instead, he robs banks maniacally, like Batman's Joker, wearing a Darth Vader helmet and leaping atop the tellers' windows, shouting and threatening employees and customers before making a fast motorcycle getaway. Not surprisingly, his criminal career hits a dead end, happy news for the viewer weary of Sean Bobbitt's mannered cinematography, the heavy, ominous score, and dialogue mixed too low to be intelligible. The poignancy of Luke's fate is muted by the fact that apart from his love for his newly discovered son, Luke is kind of a dick.

In section two, not only is the dialogue more audible, the story is also more interesting. Patrolman Avery is a law-school educated cop, new on the beat, who ends Luke's crime spree in the line of duty. Hailed as a hero, Avery has lingering guilt feelings about Luke's year-old son, the same age as his own boy. The father-son issue folds in as Avery, who has political ambitions, tries to live up to the expectations of his dad, a retired judge. A straight arrow with a conscience and a Medal of Freedom, Avery becomes privy to police corruption and makes dangerous enemies on the force (one of them played with suitable scariness by Ray Liotta). Shedding the first section's mannered, mumblecore style, Cianfrance displays a sure hand with the police thriller genre; too bad the entire film isn't as solid as this section. Part three introduces Avery's son AJ (Emory Cohen) as Avery is campaigning for state attorney general.  The kid is a muttering suburban “wigga” whose chief interests are getting high and scoring Ecstasy and Oxy. He preys on classmate Jason (the excellent Dane DeHaan), son of hapless "Moto Bandit" Luke. Would-be thug AJ enlists innocent Jason in his criminal adventures, setting in motion a chain of retributive violence.

The tripartate film doesn't quite cohere, but it does contain strong scenes. It also enables comparisons between Gosling and Cooper, two popular, good-looking leading men, In this cage match, Cooper is the victor. He continues to demonstrate impressive range and sensitivity, and in emotional scenes, he's the cinema's best crier since another Cooper, the famous 1930s child actor Jackie Cooper. 

Monday, January 7, 2013

Film Review: Not Fade Away

Review by Pamela Zoslov

I believe “Not Fade Away” by Buddy Holly is the best song title in rock and roll. It's also the name of Sopranos creator David Chase's feature film debut, which refreshingly isn't a gangster story but a paean to 1960s rock and roll. That sounds promising, but the movie is a disappointingly patchy piece of work, entertaining in places but strangely lacking overall coherence. The movie does feature some great vintage TV footage (The Rolling Stones on “Dean Martin's Hollywood Palace”!), a first-class soundtrack curated by “Little Steven” Van Zandt (who played Silvio on The Sopranos), and a handful of arresting scenes.

Chase's affection for rock music was amply displayed in The Sopranos, woven into the series' ominous landscape, the haunting mood set by Tony Soprano driving on the New Jersey Turnpike to the sounds of Alabama 3's “Woke Up This Morning (Chosen One).” And Not Fade Away is at its best when portraying the electrifying effect of the early rock bands on ordinary suburban teens, with images of teens sitting transfixed by images of a swaggering Mick Jagger singing “I Just Wanna Make Love to You” on TV, or discovering Bo Diddley and Leadbelly and Robert Johnson through the British rock musicians who popularized them. “How is it the English knew all about the blues and we didn't, even though it was right under our noses?” wonders Douglas (John Magaro), the curly-haired young lead singer of an aspiring rock band in suburban New Jersey. If only Not Fade Away focused more on the transformational nature of music in the '60s, rather than trying to tell a desultory story about some sulky teenagers, it might really have been something.

The movie, which spans a period from 1963 to the late '60s, is anchored by Douglas' family, headed by gruff paterfamilias Pat (James Gandolfini, in a role that's hardly a stretch), who disapproves of most things, including “The Twilight Zone” (“Send that one back to the Indians!”) and the rock and roll that has captivated his son Douglas, who plays drums in a band with his friends. Douglas' mom is basically a cartoon, ironing clothes in curlers like Hairpray's Edna Turnbull and occasionally crying out in exasperation, “I'm going to kill myself!” and its equally unfunny alternate, “I'm going to slit my wrists!” A neighboring family is similarly lampoonish, but wealthier: the Dietzes, headed by Jack (Christopher McDonald), who loudly expresses racist and pro-war attitudes common to the era — not much shading or complexity in this screenplay. The Dietz daughters are pretty, doe-eyed Grace (Bella Heathcote), who becomes Douglas' fickle girlfriend, and her older sister Joy (Dominique McElligott), a budding hippie and conceptual artist who's branded a lunatic by her parents.

Chase manages to address so many issues that affected Americans in the '60s – civil rights, Vietnam, long hair, free love – but the film is defeated by its focus on something relatively boring, the desultory ambitions of a skillful but directionless garage band. In this way it's reminiscent of the inferior Sopranos episodes focusing on Meadow and her college friends rather than Tony and his entertaining mob cohorts. Only two scenes really capture the viewer's attention, and they seem like sketches for other movies: in one, Joy is hauled off on a gurney to an asylum, and little sister Grace runs tearfully down the corridor. In the other, Gandolfini's Pat, who's dying of lymphoma, has dinner with his son in a restaurant and reveals some hidden truths about his life.

Entertaining movies have been made about rock bands pursuing fame and fortune, but Not Fade Away doesn't seem to find much of a story in that experience. There's an interesting drama lurking in the band's typical rock-band clashes — conflicting egos, styles and ambitions – but they are barely explored. Early on, Wells (Will Brill) decides that Douglas, the drummer, should replace Eugene (Jack Huston, handsome grandson of John) as lead singer; Douglas' vocals are “more soulful,” and Wells, while a fine guitarist, is flamboyant and a bit of an embarrassment. (In my view, they should have kept the tall, good-looking guy rather than the short curly-haired nerd as lead singer, but no one asked me.) Later, Wells is betrayed by his ambitious bandmates, and is especially hurt by Wells, who's his best friend from childhood. There are missed opportunities aplenty here. Nothing that happens over the film's span of years has much consequence — not the demo record the band makes, or its chance to sign a record contract, or even the serious motorcycle accident suffered by one of the band members.

All of this —not to mention Pat's cancer and Joy's commitment — amounts to no more than a shrug, and certainly much less than the testament to the “enormous power of rock and roll” spoken of in the curious narrated afterword that closes the movie, just before Douglas' little sister dances weirdly down a Los Angeles boulevard to the Sex Pistols' cover of “Road Runner.”